FREE SPEECH -- Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News reports that a federal judge today "sent mixed signals over the fate of a new law
designed to target violent animal-rights protests, indicating he will
rule later in the nation's first direct legal challenge to Congress'
attempt to protect animal researchers and scientists from serious
safety threats."

During an hourlong hearing, U.S. District Judge
Ronald Whyte suggested that the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act
may be legally vulnerable, but also left doubts about whether the
current lawsuit is the right path to take on the law in its entirety.

Federal prosecutors invoked the law for the first time earlier this year, indicting four activists accused of threats and vandalism against University of California medical researchers in Santa Cruz and Berkeley.

Lawyers
for the defendants, backed by civil liberties groups, argue that the
animal terrorism law is unconstitutional. They say it's too broad,
vague and tramples on the free speech
rights of animal rights advocates who protest and boycott for their
cause. In moving to dismiss the indictment, they maintain the law
targets animal rights groups so broadly that it would criminalize a
boycott or protest outside a fur store.

At one point,
Whyte asked attorneys for the activists: "Essentially, your position is
that if picketing or boycotting is particularly effective, it's going
to be a violation of the statute?"

Attorney Kali Grech told the judge the law is even more sweeping than that.

"This is clearly the regulation of ideas,'' she said.

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Congress enacted the legislation, which was pushed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein,
D-Calif., in the wake of a number of violent protests at California
research facilities. Federal prosecutors in March unveiled an
indictment charging Joseph Buddenberg, Maryam Khajavi, Nathan Pope and
Adriana Stumpo, alleging they were responsible for a series of
threatening protests against Bay Area researchers and their families.